Tough Sell

Kevin Taft wants to turf the Tories. Does he have what it takes?

By Sheila Pratt

The noon sunshine barely penetrates the perpetual high-rise shadows around the Metropolitan Centre on Fourth Avenue in downtown Calgary. Kevin Taft might be wondering if the chilly edge to the late-May air is a sign of the reception he’s headed for inside. It’s definitely not your usual Liberal crowd gathered in the hall. More than 120 petroleum engineers are taking in the finer points of carbon capture and nuclear energy, displayed on PowerPoints narrated with the occasional Texas accent. The annual meeting of the Gas Processing Association of Canada, an arm of Alberta’s oil patch, is notoriously conservative turf and, for years, pretty much off limits to the provincial Liberals. But Taft, after three years as leader, has his foot in this coveted door.

He heads to the podium as the crowd tucks into a late lunch. “Well, you’re getting into all sorts of gutsy things,” he tells the engineers. “Reducing greenhouse gases, nuclear energy—and now the Alberta Liberals. And I don’t know which is more radioactive,” he quips, earning himself some appreciative chuckles. That helps, because he’s about to give his pitch on the urgent need to address climate change and prepare Alberta’s economy for “the war on carbon.” It could be a tough sell in this room full of people devoted to fossil fuels.

“Alberta’s oil patch is an astonishing success story, a global leader, and the world’s petroleum industry turns to us,” says Taft, reassuring the crowd he’s market-friendly too. By the end of the speech, the engineers have some pointed questions for him. What does Taft think of the Kyoto Accord and raising royalty rates? What about government help in building a carbon storage network? yes, government has a role, he says, and “we have to get on with the job. This city above all others can lead the way.”

“I think he’s electable,” says one engineer during the post- speech musings. “But there’s that Liberal label to get past.” Another says he was curious to see if Taft would dodge the tough questions, “but he didn’t.” It could have been a Tory speaking, says another.

Petroleum engineers aren’t the only ones taking a closer look at Kevin Taft these days. Alberta voters are restless in the post-Klein era, especially in the big cities, where Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach’s rural-based government isn’t getting much traction. Calgarians, at a loss without their beloved Ralph, vented their frustration with Stelmach in the June by- election, sending a Liberal into the retired premier’s former seat, Calgary-Elbow.

The June 12 victory increased the Liberal presence to four MLAs in the southern Conservative stronghold—and it’s raising all sorts of questions about Kevin Taft.

If the winds of change are blowing, is Taft a potential premier, with the leadership skills and political smarts to run the province?

It was Ralph Klein who drove Taft into politics. The two leaders are a study in political opposites. Klein dominated politics with his flamboyant man-of-the-people persona. He transformed Alberta with his least-government-is-best ideology, left policy details to others and made it his ultimate goal to put government “on auto-pilot.”

Taft has an answer for those who claim he lacks a hard edge: “you don’t have to be a jerk to be a tough guy.”

Taft, on the other hand, spent years steeped in public policy as a civil servant and in his own consulting business. He detests Klein’s brand of rigid, ideological politics and believes that a government should actively protect the public interest, not pass it off to the markets. Klein, with his remarkable ability to read the public mood, governed with gut instinct and a penchant for bullying. Taft, armed with a Ph.D. in business, has a smart, analytical mind and, at heart, a touch of the social activist. He is at his congenial best in small groups. He makes a virtue of his lower-key approach, arguing that Albertans have had enough of the “personality cult” of Klein and the “complete policy vacuum” left in his wake.

Can good intentions, hard work and a strong grasp of policy make an effective politician?

Critics say Taft’s image is fuzzy: He doesn’t grab the head- lines; he lacks that instinct to go for the jugular. Not like that stubborn pitbull of a mayor, Calgary’s Dave Bronconnier, who never met a TV camera he couldn’t turn on. Bronco is the scary one, Tories will tell you, not Kevin Taft, who they say has not made a big impression in voters’ minds.

Ken Chapman, a long-time Tory insider who runs a consulting business in Edmonton, recalls another Liberal leader, former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore, who came close to upsetting the Tory dynasty in 1993. Decore had a commanding presence that resonated with voters. Taft doesn’t, says Chapman: He is “an accomplished citizen, passionate about issues, but he’s not a hardball retail politician.” Policy is Taft’s strong point, but that alone doesn’t win elections. “He’s done an admirable job,” says Chapman, “but whether he can take the party further is an open question.”

Former Calgary MLA Mark Hlady, a Klein Conservative first elected in 1993, takes a harder line in his assessment. “Taft is from Edmonton; that doesn’t sell here [in Calgary]. He’s a Liberal; that doesn’t sell here. And there’s no clear policy, no one could say where he stands in health and education that’s different from us.” Having watched Taft in the Legislature, Hlady describes him as earnest but dull. “Kevin tries hard, but he comes across as teacher in front of a classroom.”

Mild-mannered he may be, but Taft does have a tough, determined streak. In 1996, Ralph Klein’s right-wing revolution was tearing a wide swath through the province, and few dared to challenge the premier. But Citizen Taft, outraged at the government’s direction, wrote his first book, Shredding the Public Interest, which baldly stated the deep cuts were not necessary. Klein was infuriated and lashed back, calling Taft a communist.

“Who would imagine that 10 years later I’d be Liberal leader and we’d be taking his seat?” Taft says. For those who claim he lacks the hard edge to take the party further, Taft has two answers. “You don’t have to be a jerk to be a tough guy,” he says. Moreover, he adds, Albertans are ready for a change. “They’re tired of ideologically driven politics, and just want moderate, pragmatic, thoughtful leadership, and policies that work.”

Laurie Blakeman, veteran Liberal MLA for Edmonton Centre, has served under four Liberal leaders in the past decade. A steely personality who has herself held Klein’s feet to the fire, she believes that Taft is the one who could take the party all the way.

She’s frustrated, though, that Taft couldn’t get the public recognition for his work as long as Klein dominated the headlines. Taft uncovered several major scandals in the last three years, including the appalling mistreatment of asbestos workers at the holy Cross hospital, the personnel scandal and bad management at the Alberta Securities Commission (later investigated by the auditor general), and more recently the battle in Balzac over water for a massive horse-racing facility outside Calgary.

In caucus, Taft is a team builder, not a top-down guy, says Blakeman. “I’ve served with some pretty closed leaders where caucus never knew what was happening. Kevin is open and makes sure everyone has a say.” One of Taft’s great strengths, she says, is building coalitions with community groups, unions, seniors and others, a strategy actively discouraged by previous Liberal leaders. It was a key factor in winning the fight against Klein’s Third Way health reforms, and is building the party’s grassroots connections. Taft has also worked hard at opening doors in Calgary. “If (Calgarians) are going to be the heart of the new West, they can’t be the old Ralph,” says Blakeman, referring to the city’s new slogan. “Taft is trying to create an Alberta in which the rising tide lifts all boats, not just the yachts.”

In April 2004, Taft took over a weak, divided party that was low in the polls and close to bankruptcy. Kieran Leblanc, now the party’s executive director, says it was Taft’s strong leadership in those dark days that dug the Liberals out of that hole. “I remember the day Kevin took us into a room and said, ‘We’re not leaving until we figure out how to pay down the $1-million debt.’” The group came up with a plan to recruit people to make monthly payments, and Taft took on the hard work of knocking on corporate doors to recruit donors. The debt is now half what it was. These days, the Liberals pull out 350 to 400 people for fundraising dinners in Calgary, and donors include a handful of oil companies (Suncor, Nexen, Talisman, Compton). The party does even better at events in Edmonton. In 2006, the party raised over $1-million (though the Conservatives did almost that in one dinner last spring). In the 2004 election, notes Leblanc, the Liberals more than doubled their seats to 16. Only 22 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot for Klein’s Conservatives. So, she says, there’s plenty of room for the Liberals to grow.

But voting patterns also suggest that growth may well be held in check by the “Liberal” label. In the 2004 election, the combined opposition parties took more of the popular vote than the Tories—53 per cent compared to 47 per cent for Klein. But the number of Liberal votes actually dropped by about 15,000. The Liberals took nine more seats mainly because 210,000 Tories stayed home.

The June by-election in Calgary-Elbow tells a similar tale. Tory support fell drastically—the Conservatives garnered only 4,017 votes, down from 6,958 in 2004. The Liberals, meanwhile, got only 300 votes more than they had in 2004. Tory support is eroding in Cowtown, but it’s not swinging to the Liberals as it did in Edmonton in three of the last four elections. Whatever his leadership abilities, Taft may be hung up on the rusty old nail of Alberta’s identity politics.

Kevin Taft sits at the kitcehn table in his home in Belgravia, an older middle-class neighbourhood near the University of Alberta campus. Over lunch with his wife, Jeanette Boman, he muses about his unexpected political career.

A nursing professor at U of A, Boman grew up on a farm east of Ponoka and is very much part of the Taft team. She has the connections in rural Alberta and has accompanied Taft on his three Red Truck summer tours around the province.

“We walked through the wards and came to a room about the size of a classroom. About 30 mentally handicapped people wandered around in hospital gowns, many with no clothes, not toilet trained—it was terrible, like a Victorian asylum.”

Married in 1982, they describe their marriage as one of equals; they’ve both done stints at home with the kids. Their two teenage boys played hockey on the rink across the street, which Taft used to operate for the community. Taft himself played old-timers hockey until political life got too busy. Taft has a private side, and the hardest thing about politics, he says, is being in the public glare—though he and Jeanette still manage to sneak off to the nearby Dairy Queen on a hot summer night. he likes to putter around the yard when he gets a free moment, and on this summer weekend he’s getting ready to install rain barrels to conserve water in his environmentally friendly home.

Taft’s mother, Alma, came to Edmonton from Saskatchewan when he was a small boy. She taught television arts at a city high school and raised her four children with the belief that you should fight to right wrongs. “I got some of my crusading spirit from her,” says Taft. And that’s certainly part of what drives his new-found ambition to be premier.

To understand Taft’s politics, you have to go back to the early Lougheed days. Taft was recruited in the early 1970s to serve on Premier Peter Lougheed’s new health facilities review committee, charged with inspecting hospitals and, later, nursing homes. He absorbed the prevailing view that government had a positive role to play in building a province and an economy.

Taft still vividly recalls a pivotal political lesson he learned in the mid-1970s—the day the committee visited the Michener Centre in Red Deer. “We walked through the wards and came to a room about the size of a classroom. About 30 mentally handicapped people wandered around in hospital gowns, many with no clothes, not toilet trained—it was terrible, like a Victorian asylum. We walked out of there and a few of us felt physically sick.” Shortly afterward, Premier Peter Lougheed took the same tour, and suddenly things changed. “We went back a few years later. People were clothed, treated like human beings, had programs. It was really a before-and-after lesson about what enlightened public leadership can do.”

For the next nine years on the committee, Taft rubbed shoulders with cabinet ministers, immersed himself in health- care policy, absorbed lessons in how government works. So it was a natural step from the committee into the civil service, which he entered shortly after graduating from the University of Alberta. But like many young men, Taft the bureaucrat became restless and found a job that took him to the Gobi desert in China arranging scientific exchanges. By 1991, with a master’s degree in his pocket, he was back at policy work. The Getty government, struggling with low oil revenues, hired him to do a report on where to take services for seniors. Taft’s report, finished in late 1992, recommended only moderate cuts. A few months later, Klein was elected Tory leader. His government shredded Taft’s report in February 1993, presumably because it didn’t fit the party line that costs were spiralling out of control. Taft went off to England to do his Ph.D. in business at University of Warwick.

In 1995, when he returned from England, Taft was shocked at what he found at home. The Klein spending cuts were in full swing, hospital beds closed, salaries slashed, thousands of civil servants and nurses laid off, seniors benefits cut—“it felt like society at war,” he says. “I can’t tell you how offended I was by what was being done to my province. When I left Alberta it was a fundamentally decent, moderate and balanced society and I came back to this hostile and deceitful climate, where to question your own government was unpatriotic.”

Citizen Taft couldn’t sit back. In Shredding the Public Interest, he challenged Klein’s view that spending was out of control. When Klein made plans to allow private hospitals, Taft hit back with another short book, Clear Answers: The Economics and Politics of For-Profit Medicine. Not surprisingly, Nancy Macbeth, then the Liberal leader, came calling, and talked Taft into running in the 2001 election. That’s when he bought his first party card. He won handily, but the party lost half its seats.

Three years later, Taft took over leadership of a demoralized and weakened party just seven months before the 2004 election.

The new leader wasted no time in looking for high-profile candidates. That summer, he persuaded Dave Taylor to leave his job as a radio talk show host and run for office. Taylor, now a Calgary MLA, says he was impressed with Taft’s integrity and his pragmatic approach to policy. Taylor thrives under Taft’s open, collaborative approach. When Calgary’s housing crunch hit crisis point last fall, Taylor proposed that he put together a housing policy; Taft said go ahead, Taylor recalls. So Taylor held town hall meetings, gathered ideas and within a few months came up with a plan for caucus. “Kevin was very supportive and gave me all kinds of latitude,” he says. “Kevin is pragmatic and that’s what I like. The market works nine times out of ten, but occasionally you need government action.”

When he returned in 1995, Taft was shocked. Cuts were in full swing, hospital beds closed, salaries slashed.

Pragmatic might sound appealing after the volatile years of the Klein revolution and its policy vacuum—as Klein later put it, “We had no plan.” Taft’s list of policies is lengthy—raising royalties; building up the heritage Fund; temporary rent controls; a two-year moratorium on condo conversions; special surgical centres to shorten patient wait times; more daycare spaces, including after-school care; a plan for major reductions in greenhouse gases in five years.

But not much of this policy has caught the headlines, leaving many voters to wonder what the Liberals stand for. Even with Klein finally off the stage, Taft hasn’t found a way to break through the media’s fixation on the ruling conservatives, and get his own vision out in front of the public. While media pundits grow sharply critical of Stelmach, Taft still isn’t touted as the alternative.

Stelmach’s popularity dropped rapidly this year; while the Liberals did make some gains, these did not match the pace of Stelmach’s slide. The political dynamic would be very different if the party had millions of dollars for television ads to promote their leader and platform. But it doesn’t.

Two other factors must worry Taft—the Tories’ formidable ability to regroup and the possibility of federal election that would somehow put the Liberals back in Ottawa before a provincial election.

“There’s an opportunity there but it’s not yet seized,” says Peter McCormick, political scientist at the university of Lethbridge. “one distinct possibility is that Taft won’t do really well until an election and people are obliged to compare him to Stelmach, not Klein. That’s when we’ll realize Klein isn’t around anymore.” If that’s the case, you just have to be better than the other guy.

Taft has to convince Albertans that it’s time for a change, and that he’s the one who can deliver it—a tough job for an opposition leader in this peculiar one-party state.

“Alberta won the biggest lottery. We’re 3.2 million people, half the population of Toronto, and we’ve got 82 food banks, crowded hospitals, kids who go to school hungry, and we can’t get schools built. We just have to do better,” says Taft. “My gamble and my hope is people are ready for thoughtful leadership after years of Tory ineptitude.”

Sheila Pratt is an Edmonton Journal columnist and co-author of Running on Empty: Alberta after the Boom, about the 1970s oil boom.




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